reprinted from Whatcom Watch: Bellingham Washington's July 1999 edition
Survivor of Everest Tragedy Teaches Lesson in PerseveranceClimbing High:
A Woman´s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy by Lene Gamelgaard
Seal Press, 1999
224 pp., $25
Reviewed by Sea Ganschow (aka Cindy Cummins)
Sea Ganschow is host of the “Weekly Planet Radio Show” 7-8 p.m., Monday nights on KUGS 89.3 FM and edits the annual Fog Horn literary journal.
When Lene Gamelgaard wrote Climbing High, her priority was to present the facts in an even-handed way while sharing the deeply personal lessons she gleaned. The first Scandinavian woman to climb Mt. Everest hopes to “encourage you to expand your life in new ways, large or small. For if you never test your limits how will you know what they are?” She has succeeded on both counts.
Many have heard of the best selling book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer. Gamelgaard´s revealing memoir of the same May 1996 catastrophe was released in Denmark months before Krakauer´s. The English translation has just come out this year.
For readers who have mountaineering experience or none whatsoever, Climbing High is a definite page-turner. (Don´t try to go to bed before finishing it, you probably won´t be able to sleep.) After reading it I feel that I have a good understanding of what it is like to climb at high altitudes. Gamelgaard describes how she felt at each stage of the climb and presents her observations and insights about the motivations and characters of the lead climbers and guides.
I had heard about the controversy of whether the most experienced and skilled of the mountaineers, during that storm, may have perished helping the less experienced. After reading the book I have definite opinions about why the most experienced of Lene´s group, Mountain Madness expedition leader Scott Fischer of Seattle, Washington, ended up dying on the descent. Like Gamelgaard, I´ll let you read and decide for yourself.
Gamelgaard´s determination and disciplined way of thinking are impressive and, no doubt contributed to her success. She continually thought “to the summit and safe return” as a way of computer-programming her human mind. She taped the words to her wall next to images of Everest where she would see them daily before the trip. She speculates that her years studying psychology were instrumental in her survival. Nevertheless, while her narrow focus was upon visualizing the summit and safe return, she also realized the need to be aware of dangers—such as inclement weather or high altitude sickness—when turning back would be called for.
Her self-suggestions came through for her. At one critical point, when she and several others were descending Everest´s summit and were lost in a fierce storm, Lene said to herself, “It´s not my time.” She then went forward to find the camp with a like-minded colleague while others were whispering in various stages of hypothermic reaction “I just want to die.”
When she could´ve been very critical of others, Gamelgaard merely presented what the person said or did and then her thoughts about it. The reader is left to develop their own opinions. For example, she was surprised early on at fellow expedition members´ naiveté about certain demands of the trip and her thought was she would´ve expected them to be aware and prepared for it.
Lene´s surprise seemed to stem from a reverse naiveté—the fact that she herself spent so much time mentally preparing to reach “the summit and safe return” and physically preparing herself, combined with the fact that she operated from the code that ultimately it was she who was responsible for herself and her success led her to assume others would also.
Not that she was a prima donna or a cold fish. Lene was very concerned and supportive of others when they needed help. For example, early on she had slowed her pace to that of another woman who was having a difficult time. That in turn surprised the woman who said it was usually very competitive up there between women, not supportive. Just before the final summit, however, a friend cautioned her to spend her energy on taking care of herself.
It was frustrating to read about one expedition member who continually got high altitude cerebral edema and yet continually tried climbing the highest mountains! high altitude cerebral edema reduces a human being to the state of a vegetable and the brain damage can be permanent or result in death within hours if the person is not transported to a lower altitude. Evidence shows that once you get it you will invariably be susceptible to it any time you reach the higher altitudes. The members own determination apparently helped him convince the guides he could go a little further, then a little further.
Those with the highest level of physical fitness and conditioning still never know how their bodies will finally respond in very high altitudes or in “the death zone” over 24,000 feet.
If someone knows they are prone to high altitude cerebral edema , yet pushes to continue with the group they are a known risk and could cost lives by needing to be carried down by the others in what is known as a Gamow Bag—a bag which can be pumped full of oxygen and has some air pressure adjustments. (Helicopters cannot reach these altitudes) The stricken person still needs to reach lower altitudes immediately. Scott Fischer had to carry people in such conditions in the dark of night down sheer ice at least once on this expedition.
Understandably, Gamelgaard found it difficult to comprehend or respect why men with wives and children would take such extreme risks. She had decided to avoid serious relationship—had in fact distanced herself emotionally from friends before this climb—but says that a family would be her next goal. She phoned her parents once a week though and had initially put off telling them of her plans as long as possible knowing of their worry.
As for myself, as a mother and partner I see good reason not to undertake activities which are conscious high risks. But lene´s successful climb to the highest mountain in the world called “Mother Goddess of the World” (in translation of the Nepalese name for Everest) affirms and reminds me I can climb my own personal mountains. The spiritual goals that I seek and which often seem too far away, feel more reachable after reading this book. I´ve adapted her “to the summit and safe return” as a preparation for meditation.
Further, I coincidentally finished reading this book the night of the boiler room explosion at Georgia Pacific and in the aftermath of the petroleum pipeline explosion and destruction of Whatcom Falls Creek which took three lives. Juxtaposed with the incredible way Gamelgaard persevered and reached the highest mountain peak in the world, these events caused me to reflect that our community can empower itself to insist upon important changes in local industry regarding personal safety, clean air and clean water. Like Gamelgaard we too must visualize reaching our goals, then speak out and act on our own behalf.
I think people should read this book who have climbed a mountain, have never climbed a mountain before or who would like to. People who need a reminder of the power of the human spirit and the power of the human mind will find just that within these pages. Yet ever present is the fact that “nature determines” and at times we truly are powerless.
One of the things I liked about Gamelgaard was she carried no illusions that “happiness” would be found at the top of Everest. She is the kind of person who finds happiness in the process and in the present wherever she may be. The climbing life—both the isolation and the people—itself is what she enjoys. Yes, the Everest expedition was a challenge she strove with all her being to meet with success. She knew from the start that she could do it at a price. She just didn´t know how high that price would be.
When people say to her it´s too bad that her greatest victory had to be in the midst of such tragedy she says she really doesn´t see it that way. She knew exactly what the risks were. She just didn´t know “how high a price Mother Goddess of the World would exact to show us humans the consequences of hubris.”